Monday, April 4, 2011

Love Wins

A few years ago, a popular Christian book came out that seemed to have a polarizing effect on its readers. Readers either a) were emotionally affected and experienced a newfound love for God, or b) were intellectually and theologically put out, pointing out all sorts of flaws and fallacies with its theological underpinnings. For awhile, it seemed to be what everyone was talking about in church circles, especially internet circles.

I found myself somewhere in the middle, with slightly different praises and critiques. While I'm no literary critic, I personally felt disappointed in the overall writing and language; it was good, but still didn't meet my fairly high expectations. I also appreciated the author's willingness to express ideas about God in creative ways, especially how God responds to us in our pain and suffering and invites us into relationship with Him. The author took risks and forced the Christian community to readdress some of its key dogmas and creeds about the nature of the Divine.

The more I think about it, Love Wins is just the 2011 version of The Shack. Hey, Eugene Peterson loved 'em both.

A key difference: The Shack was a novel about the Trinity loving us in our suffering. Love Wins is a theological tome about heaven and hell.

Enough people have written their thoughts and reviews on Love Wins--you can read a few here, and here, and here, and here--that I strongly debated adding my voice to the online static. These voices are all theological critiques choosing sides in the midst of what seems like an ongoing conservative vs. liberal debate in the evangelical world. I don't fit the either/or of debates like these. I joyfully agreed with about 85% of Bell's book, while I strongly disagree with about 15%. I think that's okay. I'd be hard pressed to find any theologians that I completely agree with 100% of their views. I hope to take a different approach in this conversation, speaking from a youth ministry point of view. I'd like to point out why books like Bell's might be important in teaching students the ways of discernment.

A year ago we did a series on heaven and hell with our junior high students. Over a few weeks, students could write down questions about heaven and hell on cards and turn them in, leading up to a Q&A time in our final week. Some of the questions junior highers are asking about life after death:
  • Where is the devil, and what is he doing?
  • If a Christian commits suicide, do they lose their salvation and go to hell?
  • What about mothers who miscarry, will they ever have a chance to see their baby?
  • What happens to people who don't hear about Jesus, like they live in a jungle in South America?
  • Won't heaven be boring since it goes on for eternity?
  • Will there be food?
People are curious about heaven and hell. We all want to know what happens after we die. Recent natural disasters like the ones in Japan, Haiti, and New Zealand, as well as personal tragedies of friends or family dying all remind us that death is more common than we'd often like to admit. So how do we lovingly point students in the right direction when it comes to deep questions about the spiritual realm? How do we graciously point them to truth about heaven and hell?

Address the hard questions and give honest answers. Bell has been often critiqued for skirting around answering questions in recent public interviews, and I do wish he'd speak more frankly about what he really thinks. I have to commend him for asking some really tough and honest questions; the entire first chapter of Love Wins is devoted to difficult theological queries. Yet honest answers are just as important as  honest questions, even if that answer is "we just don't know." One of my personal values is embrace the tension, which involves having a willingness to live in paradox and mystery. The key word is live; it requires ongoing action in midst of tension, not just sitting around asking questions. Young people need to know that their questions about heaven and hell are valuable, that they won't be condemned or rejected for asking tough things from God. They also need to be pointed in a direction of loving action that stem from those questions.

Teach students how to think about heaven. Point out the truths of the kingdom of God--that heaven is both here and not here, now and not yet; that the Gospel is not escapist and boring, but requires loving engagement in our world now; that Christ's salvation is multifaceted and holistic and ongoing, not just one atonement theory or only justification. It comes back to teaching students how to think instead of what to think. (This also is important when it comes to reading books, watching movies, or any form of media consumption. We have to be teaching students how to discern the messages they're hearing, how to cling to the good and reject every form of evil. We want students to become sieves, not sponges or funnels.) This is somewhat difficult with Bell's new book format--specific verse references and his typically awesome footnotes aren't found in Love Wins, requiring a discerning mind and an open Bible in order to sift the good from the not-so-good.

Present the Gospel as really really really good news. I think a lot of Bell's book is a reaction from people presenting the Gospel as something that is either a) boring, b) mean-spirited, or c) incomplete. I love what Tim Keller says in King's Cross, that religion is all about advice--trying to convince someone to do something good in order to be saved by God--while the Gospel is truly good news--news is an announcement, a proclamation of something that has already happened, that even while we're broken by sin, God's grace is available through Jesus and He loves us a ton. Students need to hear good news, not a laundry list of moral platitudes.

If nothing else, I joyfully affirm the book's title. Love does, in fact, win. Death and pain and sin don't have the final say. Jesus does. And he says that he loves us enough to offer us abundant life in him, here and now, and for eternity. That's good news.

If you've read it, what do you think of Love Wins? And how are you fostering conversations about heaven and hell with students?


  1. "I joyfully agreed with about 85% of Bell's book, while I strongly disagree with about 15%." - funny, that's almost exactly how I would articulate my own opinion. I particularly like the chapter on heaven, as it echoes much of Wright's "Surprised By Hope" (although Wright does a better job). That 15% though I just can't get behind. Still think people should read and THEN discuss it though, as it could lead to a lot of fruitful discussions.

  2. Read it, but have held back at the moment on the teaching side. Your right teaching students HOW to process through the difficult questions is many times more important than just arriving or telling some answers. In regards to heaven and hell and whatever other topic there might be do you think it helpful regularly help your students question what they believe? I know for our group the "sunday school answers" are dominant and when they give them i usually ask... WHY. Why is that the answer. or through them the difficult counter argument. But how do we move them from realizing there is more to it.. and help them appreciate the TENSION in following Christ and learning about His ways/universe? Great post!

  3. @Curtis, I totally agree about the heaven chapter and N.T. Wright. If you read Wright's "Surprised by Hope," C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce," and Tim Keller's "The Prodigal God," then you've got the best parts of "Love Wins."

    @jpez, I want to foster what educators call "disequilibration" in students. That requires bumping their comfortable paradigms a little, causing them to have to realign themselves, which tends to cause learning and growth. That tends to happen best through humble questions and allowing for that frustration to mount instead of rushing to give them answers right away. Jesus doesn't seem to mind leaving people in tension and with questions, so I don't either.